True Buddhism

Last week I received an email from someone asking if a certain Buddhist sect was “True Buddhism.” Looking back now, I wish my response had been more like this:

True Buddhism is a way of life to help people wake up to who they originally are and to live out their true self.”

Anything that does that is True Buddhism.

We can find dozens of other equally great and laconic statements about Buddha-dharma. But this is the one that resonates with me at the moment. It’s from New Mahayana: Buddhism for a Post Modern Era by Akizuki Ryomin. I read it some twenty-five years ago. He had some interesting things to say but much of it was specific to Japan.  He was trying to reform Buddhism by creating a new movement and his program involved chanting the title of the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra as a sort of universal mantra.

4006cOne other thing I remember from the book: he says it is bad luck to meet a monk in his robes in the first three days of the year. Keep that in mind.


Fear, Loathing, and Terrorism in Buddhist Countries

A guy named Andrew Brown writes in the Guardian UK,

It’s a commonplace that wars and religions are closely associated. Since about 1945 there has been an increasing tendency for wars to be fought along religious, as well as ethnic, economic and cultural lines, though I don’t think many people realise that the most warlike religion in the modern world, measured by the proportion of countries at war where it has a significant following, is actually Buddhism.”

My first reaction to this was, Hey, wait a minute, pal. Then, well, maybe there’s some truth to that. When I took a closer look at the statement, I went back to my first reaction.

To say, “increasing tendency for wars to be fought along religious, as well as ethnic, economic and cultural lines”, is to say nothing really, except that there are many reasons why wars are being fought. And, what does he mean by war?

According to Buddhanet, the top ten countries with the largest Buddhist populations are Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Laos, Vietnam, Japan, Macau, Taiwan. And according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), a data collection project on organized violence housed at Uppsala University in Sweden, which evidently is relied upon by the United Nations, only two of those countries have ongoing military conflicts: Burma/Myanmar (internal conflict since 1948) and Thailand (South Thailand insurgency since 2004).

So I don’t think Brown’s claim is valid.

That does not mean that bad stuff isn’t happening in some Buddhist countries. It is. Some very bad stuff.

Burma: Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)
Burma: Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)

I’ve previously written about the situation in Burma (here, here, here, and here). A week ago, Human Rights Watch accused Burmese security forces backed by Buddhist monks of having “committed crimes against humanity” by waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing that has displaced more than 125,000 Rohingya Muslims. Wednesday, the Dalai Lama finally issued a public condemnation of violence there. In December, a number of Buddhist leaders wrote an overly-polite (to my mind) letter expressing their concern about the growing conflict.

I’ve also commented many times on the situation in Tibet (most recently in this post), and it not only qualifies as a conflict, but as far as I’m concerned, it is a war against the Tibetan people. I don’t know much about the insurgency in Thailand except it is led by an Islamic separatist group.

In Sri Lanka, suppression of racial minorities is nothing new. Buddhism is the de facto state religion. The treatment of Sri Lankan Tamil people by the Theravadin majority resulted in a long civil war that officially ended in 2009, however tensions between the two groups still persist. Recently I’ve learned of a couple of hard-line Buddhist Nationalist groups targeting Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka.

One, called the Bodhu Bala Sena, or BBS, which means “Buddhist Strength Force,” has been involved in several incidents of sectarian violence. In one altercation, a mob of hundreds of Buddhist extremists set fire to a clothing store and warehouse in the capital of Colombo. They claim that Muslim students receive favorable treatment in schools, that Muslims use illegal methods to kill livestock, accuse Muslims of building too many mosques, and having too many children.

Another ultra-nationalist Buddhist group, Sinhala Echo, founded by a monk named Akmeemana Dayarathana, makes similar claims, but does not seem to have been involved in any violence.

These things are troubling. Buddhist groups like Bodhu Bala Sena and Sinhala Echo shame the Buddha’s dharma. Equally troubling are journalists like Andrew Brown who don’t do their homework and write inflammatory statements, I suppose to create a stir. Brown, surprisingly, was winner of the 1994 “John Templeton European Religion Writer of the Year” award. Currently he is editor for the Guardian’s Comment is Free Belief section. I suspect he is a Christian.

I make that last comment because many Christian writers have a bad habit of criticizing other religions without having any real knowledge about those religions. A recent case in point is an article I read by Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and The King’s College, “Comparing Christianity & Buddhism.” There are so many inaccuracies in this piece it would take an entire post to go through them all. I suppose what really rankles me about what Kreeft wrote was his superior tone and statement at the end: “But Buddhists even more desperately need to hear what they do not know: the news about God and His love.”

I couldn’t disagree more, but that would another post, too. While I am critical of the beliefs of the Abrahamic religions, I certainly don’t approve of intolerance or violence against their believers. The actions of ultra-nationalist groups using the dharma as an excuse for their fanaticism should be strongly (not politely) condemned by all Buddhists.

If you want to read more about the these situations, I recommend this at CNN and this at

Lastly, if you search Google Images using the search terms “Buddhist terrorist,” “Buddhist terrorist groups,” or something similar, you will see a great many disturbing images, especially of the recent atrocities in Burma. They may be difficult to look at, but they will definitely disabuse you of any idealistic notions you might harbor about Buddhism in some of the countries I’ve mentioned in this post.  

Fear is another root of violence and terrorism. We terrorize others so they will have no chance to terrorize us. We want to kill before we are killed. Instead of bringing us peace and safety, this escalates violence. If we kill someone we call a terrorist, his son may become a terrorist. Throughout history, the more we kill, the more terrorists we create.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism


Buddhism and Taoism

Tao: The “radical” on the left means “go” or “advance,” indicating movement.

Taoism is a philosophy based on tao (“dao”), or the Way, an ancient Chinese concept expressed in two principle works, Tao te ching (“Book of the Way and Virtue”), attributed to Lao Tzu (fl. 6th century BCE), considered the founder of Taoism, and Chuang Tzu, the words of Master Chuang Tzu.

Taoism and Buddhism have a long history of co-existence and intermingling. Many of the early Buddhists in China were also Taoists, and Taoism exerted a profound and positive influence on Buddhism.

But things got off to a rocky start when Buddhism was first introduced to China. The Taoists resented these newcomers, the Buddhists, coming along with their strange Indian ideas. So, they said, “Well, you know the Buddha is just an emanation of Lao Tzu.” Of course, the Buddhists didn’t feel like they could let the Taoists get away with this, so they got together and decided to push the Buddha’s birth-date back 500 years so that he couldn’t be the emanation of anyone. That’s how the date of 3000 BCE was established. Today, everyone knows better, except the Nichiren and Pure Land schools who are kind of wedded to this notion, since their Buddhisms are based on the Latter Day of The Law, the degenerate age, which in turn is based on this 3000 BCE date.

What is tao? As I wrote above it means the Way, but a precise definition is hard to come by, for as the Tao te ching says,

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

The word tao can also be translated as “path” or “road.” Tao is mysterious, unfathomable, a path to ultimate reality, the force of ultimate reality itself, an abstract concept. Wing-tsit Chan gave as good an explanation as any:

It is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course. When this Tao is possessed by individual things it becomes its character or virtue (te) . . . As the way of life, it denotes simplicity, spontaneity, tranquility, weakness, and most important of all, non-action (wu-wei). But the latter is not meant literally ‘inactivity’ but rather ‘taking no action that is contrary to Nature’ – in other words, letting Nature take its own course.” [1. Wing-tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1963, 136]

While the idea of a primordial force that is the creator or origin of all things is not entirely consistent with Buddhist thinking, it is not altogether inconsistent either.

Chuang Tzu said that the mind of the sage is the mirror of heaven and earth in which all things are reflected.

In Buddhism, the ideal is that of a buddha or the bodhisattva, while in Taoism it is the sage. “The life of the sage is a transcendent one,” writes Fung Yu-lan. “But to transcend the world does not mean to be divorced from the world, and therefore the Chinese sage is not the kind of sage who is so sublime that he is not concerned about the business of world.” [2. Fung Yu-lan, The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1947, 4]

The sage man is “the great man,” the wise man; part philosopher, part King, part ordinary person. The sage does not outwardly strive for anything, not for enlightenment, not to liberate other beings, yet simply by living in the natural rhythm of life, the sage helps all people dispel their confusions. In some respects, sageliness is comparable to Buddha Nature in that all people have the qualities of a sage within, just waiting to be nurtured.

Emptiness, tranquility, mellowness, quietude, and taking no action are the root of all things . . . One who is in accord with the world is in harmony with all beings. To be in harmony with all beings means happiness and to be in harmony with nature means the happiness of nature.”

Chuang Tzu, The Way of Heaven

Once the Taoists began to accept the presence of Buddhism in China, it attracted their interest. They were particularly intrigued by the doctrine of emptiness (sunyata). From exposure to Buddhist culture, Taoism gradually transformed itself from a sort of freewheeling philosophy into a religion, and it was Buddhism that inspired them to make statues of their important figures. During the 5th century, a movement emerged that attempted to forge a real synthesis between not only Buddhism and Taoism, but also Confucianism. This movement was known as Jen-t’ien-chiao or “Man-Heaven Teachings.”

A Buddhist named T’an-ching (not to be confused with the “Platform Sutra”) in an apocryphal sutra titled T’i-wei Po-li Ching (“The Sutra of Trapusa and Bhallika”) sought to meld the five precepts of Buddhism (panca-sila) with the theory of the five elements of Taoism and the five virtues in Confucianism. The claim for this text is that it supposedly represents a teaching the Buddha gave on the seventh day after his enlightenment to a band of merchants led by Trapusa (T’i-wei) and Bhallika (Po-li). This fabricated sutra had an influence on the Chinese p’an-chiao or sutra classification system in which the periods of the Buddha’s teachings were divided according to content and chronological order. The T’i-wei Po-li Ching was used by a lay convert, Liu Ch’iu (438-495), to separate the Buddha’s teachings into the “sudden” and “gradual” categories.

From the first paragraph of the T’i-wei Po-li Ching, translated by Whalen W. Lai, we get a glimpse at how easily and seamlessly the Chinese were able to blend the doctrines of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism into an organic whole:

When the tathagata attained the Tao under the bodhi tree, for seven days no one knew that he had so attained the highest mystical state (samyak-sambodhi) except for two gentry devotees T’i-wei and Po-li. These two were versed in yin-yang and knew thoroughly the art of tortoise shell divination, the I-ching [Book of Change], and fortune telling. They alone knew that the Buddha had attained enlightenment. Together with the god of the tree, T’i-wei [and Po-li] offered food to the Buddha and so did the four heavenly kings. The Buddha, after eating the food, preached to T’i-wei [and Po-li] the law of rebirth in the various paths of existence.”

There is much more that could be said on this subject, and naturally, the surface can only be scratched in a single blog post. For further reading, particularly with regard to Jen-t’ien-chiao and the T’i-wei Po-li Ching, I recommend Buddhist and Taoist Practice in Medieval Chinese Society, edited by David W. Chappell (University of Hawaii Press, 1987) and Kenneth Ch’en’s Buddhism in China A Historical Survey (Princeton University Press, 1973). There are also many good translations of both the Tao te ching and Chuang Tzu to choose from.



Men and Morals

A survey by released the Pew Forum in July found that eight in 10 voters were either “comfortable” with Mitt Romney being a Mormon or simply didn’t care. Although Google reported a spike in interest in August, probably due to the convention, Romney’s faith remains pretty much a non-issue for most voters. That’s good on one hand, because religion should not be a political issue. On the other hand, well, you have to admit that Mormonism is a little kooky.

Most Mormons belong to the Church of Latter Day Saints, a movement based on a “sacred text” called “The Book of Mormon,” which has apparently inspired a hit musical. Here’s how one historian has described it, the original book, that is:

[A] pretended history of ancient America it tells how the lost ten tribes of Israel migrated to this continent and perpetrated a series of Kisheneff [1. I assume this is a reference to “The Ghost of Kisheneff,” a poem by Henry Tudor.] massacres upon one another, until they dwindled down to a mere remnant, the ignoble red man. The discovery of this thrilling document is attributed to an illiterate young farmer, Joseph Smith, Junior, the founder of Mormonism.”

That was written by a man named Woodbridge Riley (no relation as far as I know) in September 1904. Riley is little known today, but during his time he was a well-respected scholar who, in addition to teaching at John Hopkins and Vassar universities, lectured at the Sorbonne for a year.

I. Woodbridge Riley

Isaac Woodbridge Riley, the son of a Presbyterian Minister was born in May of 1869. He received a bachelor’s degree at Yale, a masters degree in 1898, and in 1902 he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy. Mormonism was a subject of particular interest to Riley. His master’s thesis was “The Metaphysics of Mormonism,” and it formed the basis of his Doctor’s dissertation. In 1902, he revised his dissertation and published it as The Founder of Mormonism: A Psychological Study of Joseph Smith. According to the Vassar College Encyclopedia, the book “drew criticism from the Mormon Church, foreshadowing the kinds of attack that Riley’s unapologetic and often satiric scholarship would receive for the rest of his life.”

You get a hit of that satirical side in his reference above to “this thrilling document.” It’s true, people named Riley do tend to be smart-asses, at least in my family.

NY Times – Sept. 20, 1902

Joseph Smith drew some fire, as well. The New York Times Saturday Review of Books ran a piece on Riley’s book in which John White Chadwick wrote of Smith, “His egotism was so colossal that he could write without compunction, ‘I know more than all the world put together,’ and declare God to be his ‘right-hand man.’ ” I guess Smith eventually overcame his illiteracy.

Woodbridge Riley did not limit his scholarship to Mormonism. As the Vassar Encyclopedia notes, “Throughout his career, Riley was always interested in the development of philosophic thought; most of his work analyzed philosophic or religious movements in Italy or America. “

I first became aware of Riley some years ago. While browsing in a used bookstore, I ran across a volume entitled, Men and Morals. Needless to say, the author’s last name is what attracted my attention.

Men and Morals is subtitled “The Story of Ethics.” The Bookman, in December 1929, described it as follows:

It is a thorough, well-organized, unobscured account of the great moral codes of the past—in early and later Greece, in the Orient, in Europe under the domination of the Church and after the Renaissance. Professor Riley interprets and evaluates the Platonic and Aristotelian, the Stoic and Epicurean codes; he examines critically the morals of the Church Fathers, of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza; he expounds the systems of Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume; the idealism of Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche; the pragmatism of William James and Dewey. Men and Morals is a book for him who reads that he may think.”

As for my principal area of interest, Eastern philosophy, or what Riley called “the Asiatic Systems,” in Men and Morals, he covered only Buddhism and Confucianism. He wrote in the style of his time, which seems so archaic to us now, but it doesn’t suffer from overuse of Biblical language that was typical of scholars writing about Eastern philosophy in that day. In the section on Buddhism, he focuses his attention on rebirth, karma, and the doctrine of no-self, and I think he got it as right as he possibly could:

Here, the founder Gautama, in protest against popular thought, was opposing the Brahmanic view of the soul as an airy something, a survival of the old animist belief in the ghostly self which leaves the body not only in dreams but in death and after the dissolution of the body passes into another body – that of some beast if this life has been evil, that of some noble, or hero, or saint if this life has been good. According to this view the soul, as Atman, or breath, is imperishable; the body may moulder in the grave, but the soul goes marching on. To this popular, this primitive, belief the master objected, and in its place substituted a view which left the primitive view so far behind as to approach the most subtle modern speculations on the meaning of the self. Put in the language of the Twentieth Century, the self is not a substance, however attenuated, but a stream of consciousness; all that actually exists is a series of states of consciousness . . .”

In discussing the fetter of doubt (vicikiccha), it seems he understood the point that Nirvana is not the “extinction of individual existence” but something else:

But here twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddhists . . . reached the paradoxical conclusion that the worst doubt was not to doubt the existence of the self. This, then, was the second fetter to Gautama – to doubt the truth of the impermanence of the self . . .

In the quiet hour, freed from all disturbing emotions, the saint may attain that sense of tranquility which is described as a state of victory over the world and over birth and death, a state of inward peace that can never be shaken, of a joy that can never be ruffled. This is the condition of Nirvana . . .”

James Whitcomb Riley/Chester A. Riley

Woodbridge Riley died in September of 1933 at the age of sixty-four. You will find little biographical information about him on the Internet. That’s too bad, because I am aware of only three noteworthy persons who bear this surname – your humble blogger, moi, of course; James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier Poet; and Chester A. Riley, whose name during the 1940s and 50s was synonymous with the expression “Life of Riley” and who coined the immortal catchphrase, “What a revoltin’ development this is!” I can only hope that my post today in some way helps add Woodbridge Riley’s name to that rather paltry pantheon.

Oh yeah, there’s also that Riley who has something to do with basketball . . .


No Sacred Cows

They say humor is the best medicine. Norman Cousins famously recovered from a heart attack by watching Marx Brothers movies. I could use some humor. Last night I turned on the TV to look for some. I tuned in to the Emmys. There’s always some humor on awards shows. Well, let me tell you in case you missed it, there were jokes a plenty. Unfortunately, none of them were funny. Well, maybe they were. Maybe I’m just too old to get them. Now, that’s really funny, and the joke is on me.

Anyway, I gave up on the Emmys about half-way through and decided to create some humor of my own. At least, that’s what I intended it to be  . . . So, today’s post is a toast . . . to sacred cows.

Sacred Cow — n. informal; a person, institution, custom, etc, unreasonably held to be beyond criticism (or bad jokes).

Sacred cows make the best hamburger.

– Mark Twain

Secretly, the Buddha knew that enlightenment could only be found at Dairy Queen but he was reluctant to reveal the teaching because the people's minds were not ready for it.


Surprisingly, few people are aware that the Dalai Lama is also a pulp fiction hero.


No one gives a dharma talk quite like Thich Nhat Hanh.


Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, Robert Thurman couldn't help but be frustrated when Ron Artest broke in on his lecture to announce he was changing his name to Metta World Peace.


Actually, I do have one sacred cow.